Last week we aired the first part of an interview with Paulina Zelitsky, who published The Sea is Only Knee Deep. In this two-volume memoir she tells the fascinating story of her life growing up in the Soviet Union, working in Cuba on a Soviet naval base in the late 1960s, and her famous and daring defection to Canada in 1971.
In Part 1 of our interview, Paulina described the dangers she faced, and the indignities she endured, as a Jewish girl growing up in the Soviet Union…and later working on a Soviet naval base in Cuba and accidentally becoming privy to the political intrigues of the little-known Second Cuban Missile Crisis.
Today in Part 2 of this two-part interview, Paulina will tell us about her harrowing defection and the circumstances that convinced her that defection was the lesser danger.
As well, she will explain why recent alarming developments in Cuba today—which are being ignored by western media—lead her to believe that we are now facing a third, and much more dangerous, Cuban Missile Crisis, and its potentially disastrous ramifications in Ukraine and eastern Europe.
Pawlina: So then you started to seriously look at defection. You chose Canada. You knew nothing about it. Not a word of English, never heard a word of English, but you decided Canada and a fueling stop in Gander. And the first time was unsuccessful! You did it twice. You tried twice!
Paulina Zelitsky: Twice. Yes. First thing they caught me. I was really lucky that I was young because when young women pretend something, it’s easier than [for] everybody else. Plus I had two small children. So I pretended that my children were very sick and the airline was scared that I will complain, you know, about food that poisoned my children. Somehow I managed to survive that one, but the second one I wouldn’t have a second chance. That’s it. And once they caught me, it was already recorded somewhere, for sure. And the second time I would be put in prison. That’s for certain. And punishment for defection is severe. It’s 15 years in Gulag, of the worse kind. So I was scared but I didn’t have choice. I had to act. And that’s what happened.
Pawlina: You did crazy things.
Paulina Zelitsky: I had to.
Pawlina: I mean… the stories that you came up with the second time. You ended up on the wrong plane. You ended up in Prague, stayed there for two days with no money, with no food, with nothing. An accident with one of your little boys. You made it on the plane and … you were so smart. I don’t want to give this away. I want people to read this book because it is an amazing story. But you taught your little boy. He was the one. If it wasn’t for your little boy who runs really, really fast. He was the one that broke you free. And you ended up in Canada with the communists banging on the door. The people from the airline, that was Czechoslovakian Airlines that you managed to get on from Prague, and they were there for hours.
Pawlina: And then your story of what happened to you when you defected. And that was harrowing, too, what happened here in Canada. I was disappointed in my government in how you were treated. I was disappointed in those people in whose care you were. They weren’t a whole lot better than the ones that you left behind. It was very shocking to me. It was an eye-opener and I think it would be an eye-opener to anyone. That book should be in schools. That should be taught in schools, your story. People have no idea. Absolutely no idea and I’m just so glad that you wrote that book. It would put John le Carré to shame. Seriously, what a story.
Paulina Zelitsky: Thank you.
Pawlina: It should actually be a series on TV. But back to your story and how we connected. I just wanted a picture. I wanted to post the book review on the website. Just routine boring stuff, work-a-day stuff that I do all the time. And then you sent me this information about something that just happened in Cuba. And it’s something that’s called, what is it, the third cold war or something. Or the third missile crisis?
Paulina Zelitsky: Because it’s the third missile crisis. You see the first one was in ’62. The second one was really ’69, ’70. Because Kissinger wrote about it. The U.S. of course, had intelligence information about Soviet submarine being in Cuba, the submarine base. And he wrote an article despite the fact that Nixon forbade him to do it.
Pawlina: Okay, so this is the secret submarine base that you were working on. Your work was actually was on the construction site.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes, mine was on construction site. That’s right.
Pawlina: The facade for it. And yeah. And so that—
Paulina Zelitsky: And translation for [the] Navy.
Pawlina: Yes, yes. Yeah.
Paulina Zelitsky: I was translating for Navy too.
Pawlina: That’s right. So that was the second Cuban missile crisis.
Paulina Zelitsky: That was second. And now we are coming into third.
Pawlina: Yeah. And this is interesting…the second one, not very many people talked about it, as you said. Nixon, who is the US president at the time, forbade Kissinger from writing about it?
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes. Yes. That’s correct.
Pawlina: So it was supposed to be kept hush hush?
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes, that’s right.
Paulina Zelitsky: And it looks like it’s going to be kept [hush-hush] as well now. The reason why? I told you why I think is the reason. They didn’t know what to do about it. The United States has no anti-missile cruise missile defense at all. So they don’t know what to do about it. And when they’re bullied, they just freeze. They do nothing.
Pawlina: But going back again to 1969 and the second Cuban missile crisis. Were they prepared then or were they also not prepared…and they just wanted it to go—
Paulina Zelitsky: No, they were not prepared. They were not prepared. I was interviewed. And of course, I described my work. That was in ’71 when I described my work. And nobody heard about that, right? You didn’t.
Pawlina: No. Who did you tell your story to? Who interviewed you? The government?
Paulina Zelitsky: Government, of course. You want to know exact names? Government.
Pawlina: No, no, no! I don’t want to know names. No.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah, you know. You understand.
Pawlina: I do.
Paulina Zelitsky: But, of course, I am now so free to talk about it because it really happened. And it’s recorded.
Pawlina: Yeah. Are you worried at all for your safety?
Paulina Zelitsky: No. I am in Canada.
Pawlina: Okay. So you don’t think that there’s any danger here?
Paulina Zelitsky: No, I don’t think there is any danger in Canada. That’s right.
Pawlina: Okay. Well, you’ve lived through danger so you would recognize it if it was there. So when we were first speaking a few days ago, you brought to my attention something that was going on in Cuba, right about the time when I was airing year book review. Two weeks ago, Russian high-level officials had been in Cuba.
Paulina Zelitsky: Absolutely. Head of all Russian Navy. Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov.
Pawlina: And he was there on the request of Raul Castro and the president of Cuba.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes, that’s right. He just hit Moscow a couple of weeks before that.
Pawlina: Oh I see. So the Russian officials were in Cuba for six days. And so the announcement was made all over Russian media that they were going to beef up the-
Paulina Zelitsky: The submarine base.
Pawlina: —that you were working on in ’69.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah.
Pawlina: They were going to expand it.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah, that’s right. That they’re going to rebuild that base. And they are going actually to upgrade these harbor facilities again. Also that and the new spy center, this GLONASS. And the satellite spy center is functioning and now it’s back into operation in Cuba. The spy center and the navy base, both…
Pawlina: They were both closed?
Paulina Zelitsky: …were closed in Cuba in ’92. And now they announced that they’re reopening it. And the spy center already is reestablished, rebuilt, and operating.
Paulina Zelitsky: Right. And two days ago, a Russian spy ship, the biggest spy ship, Victorionov, came to Havana. And it’s right now in Havana Harbor from March 3rd. I don’t know how long they’re going to stay there. But from that ship, not only they listen to everything and everyone in the United States, in Canada. But also they work in, of course, in coordinating work of their new spy center.
Pawlina: Good grief. Are you worried that they’ll be hearing our conversation?
Paulina Zelitsky: No. Why? Why should I worry? I’m in Canada.
Paulina Zelitsky: I would be worried if I would be in Havana or if I would be in Moscow.
Pawlina: So we shouldn’t be worried?
Paulina Zelitsky: We shouldn’t be worried. No.
Pawlina: Okay. Why not?
Paulina Zelitsky: They’re not interested in you and me. Of course. They’re interested in a military establishment in what our governments do.
They’re not interested in what you and I do.
Pawlina: So they’re not worried that people are talking? They don’t care?
Paulina Zelitsky: No. They care about important people. We’re not important enough. My father always told me that if you want to survive, don’t become important.
Pawlina: So you had sent me some English language media. And there’s not much, is there?
Paulina Zelitsky: Not only not much. There is nothing.
Pawlina: Well, there was something. It was something about a Canadian military—
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes. NORAD.
Pawlina: Yeah. NORAD.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah. They announced that Russia is the main danger.
Paulina Zelitsky: And that’s all. They didn’t say from the south. Like yes, Russia is dangerous everywhere. Obviously, they’re a danger in any direction. But we have that danger 90 miles from the US coast, right? Ninety miles. They don’t have to use strategic weapons. They can use short or middle-range cruise missiles. Cruise missiles, short or middle-range, if they have a nuclear tip, they’re as dangerous as nuclear bombs. You understand? The cruise missiles, right now, today, nobody can stop. There is no defense against them.
Pawlina: Oh, no!
Paulina Zelitsky: The United States is only developing defense. Developing. But it’s going to be developed, they promise, for 2024. 2024. That’s a couple of years away from now.
Pawlina: You think the Russians will wait until they’re ready? Haha . Yeah. So you don’t think that the United States is aware of this?
Paulina Zelitsky: I think they are aware of everything. But they don’t want to confront anyone because they don’t know how to. You see, they’re bullied. And where they’re bullied they don’t know what to do.
Pawlina: Bullied, did you say?
Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah. Bullied. Because Soviet Union and [now] Russia are acting as a bully. They’re intimidating. In order for what? In order to negotiate. They don’t want just war for the sake of war. They don’t need to end life on this planet just for the sake of it, right?
Pawlina: What do they want?
Paulina Zelitsky: They want to negotiate. For example, right now in Ukraine, there are some differences because the new president of Ukraine wants to review the Minsk agreement. You see Poroshenko signed a deal in Minsk that the border becomes Ukrainian only after election. That means that they will elect Russian KGB in government, and that would become Ukrainian government.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah. That’s what Minsk agreement made.
Pawlina: I didn’t realize that.
Paulina Zelitsky: That’s the deal.
Pawlina: Oh, wonderful.
Paulina Zelitsky: Because Russia is controlling the borders, right? So while Russia is controlling borders, who is throwing in for elections in those regions?
Paulina Zelitsky: Correct. And if these people are elected into Ukrainian government, whom they are going to represent? So Zelensky wants to change it. He wants the deal to be changed, that first the border becomes Ukrainian and after that, they will hold the election. That’s reasonable.
Pawlina: So which border? The border that Russia breached?
Paulina Zelitsky: The border that Russia breached already.
Pawlina: So basically push Russia back to the original sovereign borders from 2013.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes. That’s right. That’s right. That’s the Minsk deal. That the condition of Minsk deal.
Pawlina: To push back all the borders to where they were in 2013?
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes. And to hold elections. But what is first? First the borders, or first the election? If the borders are under control of Russians, that means elections are not going to result in Ukrainian interests.
Paulina Zelitsky: You understand?
Pawlina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Paulina Zelitsky: So he wants to review it. And Putin doesn’t want him to. And if United States and Europe supports Ukraine, Putin might have to retire before this Minsk deal is finalized.
Paulina Zelitsky: And he doesn’t want that. He wants to retire. He wants to retire in a more secure position. He’s retiring at the end of this year. He’s supposed to retire.
Pawlina: Oh, yeah right!
Paulina Zelitsky: Of course, it’s not completely retirement. Because he still will be controlling everything and managing everything, right? But from behind, not in the front line any longer.
Pawlina: Okay, so then let me get this straight. He is in Cuba because of Ukraine?
Paulina Zelitsky: Well, yes. Yes. They are appealing to United States and the western countries to stop helping Ukraine. Don’t interfere anymore. Not just Ukraine, but also other regions, like Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, all of those regions as well.
Pawlina: So he does want to recreate the Russian empire?
Paulina Zelitsky: Exactly. That’s what I was telling in my message to you. It’s just [the] continuation of Russian traditional politics. It’s that…imperial ambitions. They can’t stop it. It’s always been. You probably know that, originally, Russia itself, Moskva, was really small region. And it grew because they conquered territories around them, right? And it never changed. They always do. They always conquer. So what they don’t want and what Khrushchev was doing and what Brezhnev was doing and what now Putin is doing…they’re warning the west not to interfere in their conquests.
Pawlina: So while the United States is preoccupied with coronavirus scares, with unseating an elected president—like him or not, he was elected—and so that whole circus that’s been going on. And in the meantime, Russia very quietly is back to its old tricks.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes. Russia very quietly is taking what they want.
Pawlina: And the rest of the world is asleep.
Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah, I was always impressed…you probably heard interviews of the granddaughter of Khrushchev. She lives in the United States and she spoke many times on interviews. And when they were asking her why Russia is doing that, she always said, “Because they can.” She always answered that way. Just because they can. You see they’re bullying and the west doesn’t know how to confront that.
Pawlina: What do you think about the Ukrainian pushback? Do you think there’s any hope there?
Paulina Zelitsky: To be very honest, I don’t think really anybody cares about Ukraine but Ukrainians.
Pawlina: Yeah. Do they have a hope in hell?
Paulina Zelitsky: Ukrainians do. But nobody else is willing to help. You know…I feel desperate.
Pawlina: You don’t have any family left there now?
Paulina Zelitsky: Yes, of course. I still have family in Odessa. They don’t want to go. They could go to Israel, they could go anywhere else. But they prefer to stay in Odessa. They love Odessa. They want to live there.
Pawlina: It’s home. But your new home is here in Canada and thank you so much for sharing your story and for giving us this heads up on what’s happening in the world today.
Paulina Zelitsky: Thank you for this. You’re so kind and so observant. I really appreciate how you treated the subject.
Pawlina: Oh, well, thank you. It’s fascinating to me. And certainly, you made it easy with your incredible storytelling skills. So again, I can’t emphasize enough for listeners to read Paulina’s memoir, The Sea is Only Knee Deep. You can get it on Amazon. It is an incredible story. Thank you for sharing it and hope to have you on the show again soon.
Paulina Zelitsky: Thank you.
Pawlina: And thank you. Paulina Zelitsky is the author of The Sea is Only Knee Deep, a two-volume memoir about her life growing up in the Soviet Union, working as an engineer on a Soviet naval base in Cuba during the second Cuban missile crisis, and her daring defection to Canada in 1971.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the author of this fascinating book. I’m Pawlina, producer and host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. Until next time, Shalom.
Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter based in Toronto, Ontario. To find out more visit their website (here) and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
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